BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 23:32 GMT 00:32 UK
Banking on green gesture?
By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News

Stephen Green and David Attenborough
David Attenborough spoke at HSBC's Climate Partnership launch
On the sixth floor of an office block in London's Canary Wharf, a crowd ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs and salmon, against a backdrop of Amazonian rainforest sounds and the tweets and croaks of exotic wildlife.

It is unclear whether the eggs were free range or the salmon ethically-farmed, but the paper in the brochures marking the occasion was sourced from sustainable forests, though a little stiff to open.

At the headquarters of HSBC, the UK's largest bank, the firm was announcing that it would split $100m (50m) between four environmental groups and charities, chosen for their involvement in addressing some of the global causes and effects of climate change.

Engaged in education, research and leadership programmes, the Climate Group, Earthwatch Institute, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and WWF will all receive the money over five years.

WWF ($35m): Working on the links between fresh water and climate change to learn how to protect water systems, including the Ganges, Yangtze and Amazon.
Earthwatch Institute ($35m): Expanding its scientific and educational research into how to use resources sustainably
The Climate Group ($17m): Promoting how government - especially in cities - can move to a low carbon economy in five major cities including London, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Shanghai. China and India offices planned.
STRI ($8m): Launching its largest forest experiment, measuring carbon and the effect of climate change in forests in Brazil, China, Britain, India and the US.
* Sums relate to HSBC donation. The bank is setting $5m aside for running the scheme

And HSBC is emphasising that this initiative is a partnership, promising that it will deliver "far reaching results, through direct investments".

But does such generosity allow a bank - or any other institution - to then continue carrying on with business as usual?

Hefty sums

The scheme marks a doubling of HSBC's previous $50m environment investment project, Investing in Nature, which ended in 2006.

For each of the organisations it marks a record.

And by donating such hefty sums to groups that do not typically have access to even a fraction of such capital, HSBC is enabling them to continue their work on a larger scale.

However as a percentage of HSBC's 2006 record profits of $22.08bn the sum represents less than 0.5%.

And the move does not mark a seismic shift in the bank's approach to clients.

They should ensure that their choice of clients does not undermine these headline initiatives
Anthea Lawson, Global Witness

Its funding and loan policies will remain the same.

After showing a short HSBC-branded film featuring imagined scenes including London under water and the Amazon being transformed into a huge motorway, the bank's chairman Stephen Green said that withdrawing from so-called "sensitive sectors" - including energy, water, forestry, chemicals or mining, would not be the right thing.

HSBC would remain committed to clients across these sectors, Mr Green said, "as long as we are confident that they are engaged in a journey towards environmental sustainability".

Hong Kong
Cities will benefit from the research
As a result, it will continue to face scrutiny from environmental groups over the kind of companies it lends money to.

"It is great to see banks throwing some hard cash at the climate change problem," said Anthea Lawson, a campaigner with environment lobby group, Global Witness.

"But they should also ensure that their choice of clients does not undermine these headline initiatives".

Right direction

HSBC has been attacked, for example, for helping Malaysian logging firm Samling list on the Hong Kong stock exchange, by environmental groups arguing that the bank was breaching its own standards for sustainable forestry.

And earlier this year, Samling subsidiary Barama lost a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certificate in Guyana.

We will and should look at our own carbon footprint
Stephen Green

HSBC's head of group sustainable development, Jon Williams, said Samling was not involved in illegal logging and while Barama had lost a FSC certificate, it was still heading in the right direction.

'Carbon footprint'

In addition to the $100m set aside in donations, HSBC is spending $8m on a range of projects to educate its own staff on climate change, and having the option to get locally involved.

Workers can learn about climate change from their desktops with an online course, and about 25,000 staff will join up with volunteer-based environmental groups during both working hours and in their own time.

A smaller group will get involved with field work, organised by the Earthwatch Institute with the aim that they become pioneers in raising awareness within the bank.

Coal plant in Germany
HSBC will continue to fund energy projects

Analysts say that HSBC has been positioning itself as the green bank and is now increasing its commitment towards that.

Energy specialist Mark Spelman of Accenture said the latest move was a good example and built on its previous initiatives but that more private-public coordination was needed.

However, like so many firms that have announced green initiatives, when one examines the details, they are not always comprehensive.

In 2005 for example HSBC declared itself carbon neutral.

But the claim only applied to the firm's buildings and business travel - including taxis and flights.

It does not insist on the same standards from its suppliers - which critics say is inconsistent.

And while HSBC says it is trying to be more energy efficient and to invest in renewable energy, the bulk of its CO2 emissions to date have been made neutral through offsetting rather than making significant behavioural changes.

In fact in 2006, its emissions rose by 23%, while its headcount increased by 15% due largely to acquisitions.

"We will and should look at our own carbon footprint," Mr Green told the BBC.

He and his bank know that by waving its cheque book it does not wave away its responsibilities, and admits there is a lot to be done.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific